Thursday, July 28, 2016

tea & damper

"Will you go back to town on the weekend?" Shania stared intently at the fire, her brow furrowed. She shook her head no.

"You prefer it out here?" I pressed on.

She nodded. Still staring at the fire.

These were the first words we'd exchanged after sitting for an hour alone at the small, smouldering campfire we'd cooked breakfast on.

It was our job to keep the fire flickering away to boil the billy for tea and in case the hunters came back with fish or mudcrabs.

Shania liked her tea in a red plastic cup that easily held half a litre of strong tea.

She made each cup with two tea bags, water boiled on the fire, a splash of cold water and no milk but a good spoon of sugar stirred in. The sugar taken from a crumpled bag that had become home to a family of ants.

Pete had gone into town, an hour and a half away on red dirt and across four river crossings. One of the crossings called Boggy Creek for good reason.

We were camping at a homeland with the Elder Pete is working with on a community led healing program, and her family.

One of the Elders had woken with a toothache and realised that the next day was a public holiday so she needed to see a dentist today. Plus her husband needed to pick up his medication from the medical clinic.

Pete's focus was getting a generator and water pump back in action for the homeland after it being without running water for two years. He packed the parts into the 4WD, the Elders and their grand-daughter climbed in and they were gone for the day.

Sol and River had gone hunting with the Elders' son and grandson and a new friend we'd made in town who was helping with repairs at the homeland.

The whole time they were away hunting I was anxious about the boys getting sunburnt, about sand fly bites covering every piece of their exposed skin and the very worst fear...crocodiles.

Shania's three month old baby was at the camp with us,  I was delighted to be regularly handed the baby. Such a gorgeous boy, so chubby and full of smiles. When he grizzled I rocked him and walked the red dirt track til he fell asleep in my arms. I would return from walking and hand the sleeping baby to his mother who tucked him into bed inside one of the the three rooms that were used as bedrooms by the family.

Pete and I and the boys were camping in our two room tent and each morning I paid great attention to sweeping the sand out and straightening the bedcovers until they were perfectly straight. I needed order in the tent, it was an oasis from the sand flies whose bites stung for days.

After three days of heat and no running water our skin was grimy and itchy with sweat, sunscreen, sand, insect repellant that didn't work and the myriad of bites as evidence. I was ready to go back to town and have a shower but in an odd way I was enjoying the grime, the letting go of all the things that matter in town.

I was also ready for a full nights sleep without the constant hum of the generator or being woken by Sol who was beside himself with discomfort from the burn and itch of bites.

On more than one occasion I zipped myself out of the tent and into the night with my torch to find a bucket and pour a bit of water into it from the jerry can holding water collected from the river 10 minutes drive away. Every drop counted so I used it sparingly but I had to do something in an attempt to bring Sol relief and bring us both sleep.

I washed his bare bite covered legs down with the cool water, wetting a towel and laying it over his legs. Once the burn and sting had eased slightly I dabbed the bites with a tea tree antiseptic cream and layed beside him singing softly til he fell back to sleep.

Bleary eyed I rolled back over to my bed for a few hours sleep before he woke me again. It was one of those nights that felt endless, one of those nights that mother's know so well where you just will the sun to rise and bring the day because the night is for sleeping and you're getting none of that.


"We're having Grandmother's damper for supper" announced Rose sitting crossed legged by the fire she rolled up her sleeves and washed her hands in a bucket of water as she prepared to make the dough.

Shania was assembling the ingredients in front of Rose as she requested them. "Got any baking powder Galay?" Rose called out to me. "No, but I've got self-raising flour". "Ma," she said.

Galay is the kinship word Rose uses for me. The Indigenous kinship system is like a vast weaving that takes deep concentration to follow and to start to work out the relationships. Galay is the word that refers to 'brother's wife'. Rose calls Pete wawa (brother) which makes me galay.

'Ma' means ok.

Once all the ingredients were gathered from the tucker box I sat on the mat and watched Rose mix and need the dough. Her elegant hands flattened and smoothed the dough over and over until it was supple and lightly dusted in flour. Rose began shaping pieces into squares about the size of a slice of bread. She placed a fry pan on the grate over the fire and poured in sunflower oil to fry the dough in. The result was somewhere between a donut and the fried scones my great grandmother made when I was a child. Rose sat carefully cooking each piece until there were two towering piles. "This one's for your family, my family," she laughed, "I know how much boys eat".

With all the pieces cooked everyone gathered around to eat. It was dark by now. A fluorescent light powered by the generator hung from a nearby tree and gave us light to squeeze golden syrup onto our damper from a plastic squeezy bottle and to pour cups of tea.

I ate my piece of damper that was crisp on the outside and softly doughy on the inside. Golden syrup dripped down my hand adding stickiness to the mix of sweat, sand and sunscreen already on my skin.

The texture and sweetness of the damper was as satisfying as the nostalgic memory of my own grandmother's version also eaten with golden syrup. I thanked Rose for the damper, drank my tea and headed to the tent if not to sleep to rest until the sun rose again.

Have you eaten damper by the fire? Or fried scones with your grandmother? I'd love to hear your stories.

*some names have been changed 

Monday, July 18, 2016

first impressions: north east arnhem land

After a mere 10 hours driving from Katherine, 700 kms of the drive on red dirt avoiding pot holes, sandy bogs and jagged rock we arrived in Arnhem Land.

For 11 years I've been hearing about Arnhem Land and Peter's Yolgnu family who live here.

Finally we are here together with our own children.

Pete is working with a Yolngu Grandmother here who takes care of her community through a healing program, taking young at-risk Yolngu out to homelands for support and healing.

We are based in Nhulunbuy the mining town set up here on the Gove Peninsula in the late 60's when Rio Tinto started mining bauxite for aluminium.

From Nhulunbuy we go out bush with Pete for him to do his work.

The coastline and landscape is postcard perfect except when the mine and refinery come into view, the mined red earth and the imposing refinery buildings and silos look like something out of a sci fi film dropped from the sky.

It is hard to fathom what it must have been like here in the 60's before the mine arrived and even harder to imagine what it must have been like when Rio Tinto made their mining 'deal' with the Traditional Owners of this land.

I don't even feel like I am in Australia anymore. It is a place of its own here.

We are remote in many senses.

Food comes in on a barge from Darwin once a week. Once the supermarket runs out of something for the week that's it. I was told on one of my first visits to the shops "Sorry, no bananas until next week".

But then there's Nature's 'supermarket' where real food is plentiful if you know where to look and how to catch it.

On our first trip out bush we ate the most spectacular mud crab, speared in the mangroves by a Yolgnu friend and cooked on the beach by his mother. "From the mangrove, to the fire, to your mouth," she said laughing as she handed Sol and I a crab claw to share.

There was no sense of time that day on the beach until the sun started to set, "We need to get back to camp before its dark, so they can collect gapu (water) from the creek" our Grandmother friend said looking up the beach for her son and husband who had gone fishing with River and Pete.

As dusk settled around us on the beach I began to worry about baru (crocodile). I looked up the beach nervously hoping to see the hunters walking back. I noticed Grandmother and her daughter-in-law did not take their eyes off the sandy point in the distance where the men had gone hunting, they too seemed to be willing them to walk back into view soon.

Within minutes we could see them walking back towards us. No fish today. We were happy and grateful for the crab. Grandmother gave the other crab claw to Peter and River to share and divided the body of the crab up for her and her husband, her son and daughter-in-law.


I shared this story on my facebook page, it has been one of my favorite moments of the trip so far...

We went to meet Nandi Beth, Pete's Yolgnu mum. Nandi is the Yolgnu word for mother. Nandi Beth was spending a few days in hospital, nothing serious so we went to the hospital to meet her. Her delight and joy at seeing River and Sol for the first time was so lovely. She hugged them to her and smiled from her heart, then stood back and looked at the boys, "I get depressed when I come to hospital. Now you've made me happy". In the car when we left Sol said, "We look different but we have the same feelings. Grandmothers love to see grandchildren." They sure do. It was such an experience of universal love.


There are challenges here. Divisions. Politics. Corruption.

There are wonders here. Songlines. Dreaming. Artistry. Family. Ceremony.

I hope you'll stick around to hear more.
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